My post this week coincides rather nicely with this wonderful piece by Guardian writer Jonathan Wilson on the concept of “the false nine”. Let me be frank on this; he is to football tactics what Socrates is to philosophy – you don’t really understand the whole concept until you read his work. His book “Inverting the Pyramid” is a must for any football supporter, and I don’t think any fans should be allowed to criticize managers at games unless they have read it. Obviously, I have read it, and therefore I have felt entitled to moan at length about Caley’s 4-5-1 formation this season…although it must be said that there are strange reptilian beasts living in the darkest, deepest caves which haven never seen daylight and who have only the tiniest light-sensing receptors on their face in place of eyes, which would be able to see that those tactics have not worked this season.
Thankfully, Terry Butcher also appears to have seen the light at last, as he sent out a starting XI last weekend with four forwards in it – which promptly scored four goals in the first 25 minutes on the way to a rather stonking 5-1 win. More of the same this weekend at home to Morton please, not least as we come to the end of October without having won a home game in the league yet.
I digress. The reason why I have highlighted “the false nine” article is because, tonight Matthew, I am going to write about Celtic. Now, as I have alluded to previously, I have watched only a morsel of Scottish football this season – but that has included Celtic’s defeat to Rangers, plus their more recent win at Hamilton last Saturday and, more relevantly (is relevantly a word? If not, it should be), the league cup defeat to Hearts. Tony Mowbray and Celtic might go on to regain the league title, you know. I certainly wouldn’t risk betting against them at this stage. But it’s pretty clear that they won’t be winning anything in a hurry if they keep playing like they are at the moment.
For those of you who can’t be bothered scouting the link above, the whole “false nine” thing, basically, is a tactical approach where a team effectively plays with no orthodox centre forward. First introduced by Luciano Spelletti at Roma a few years back, when injuries forced him to deploy a front line which included Francesco Totti (at his non-primadonna best) and a bunch of wingers and attacking midfielders, this set up was adopted by Man Utd’s Champions’ League winning side in 2008, with Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo all taking turns to drop deep and swap positions, and ultimately it probably peaked last year with Barcelona – as an aside, I disagree with Mr. Wilson’s claim that Barca have stopped playing like that since acquiring Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as when I’ve seen the Blaugrana this season the gangly Swede keeps popping up on the touchline.
One of Mr. Wilson’s other claims is that only the best teams can play it. I have issues with this as well, since Everton played a significant chunk of last season with a striker-less formation and it did them more good than harm. But he is right to say that you have to have the right sort of players. Alex Ferguson has ditched it, because Dimitar-less mobile than a dustbin and with an inferior first touch-Berbatov isn’t the right sort of player, and because he doesn’t have Cristiano Ronaldo to streak inside off the wing and cause mayhem anymore. But when I have seen Celtic this season, it seems to me that Mowbray is determined that a variation of the striker-less system is the way to go. Last night against Hearts, he lined up Chris Killen (like most male New Zealanders, a guy whose physique is more suited to rugby) up front, and the Kiwi kept dropping deep to try and get involved in build-up. Meanwhile, McGeady and Maloney could be found running infield more often than they hugged the touchline, while Zheng Zhi played as a good ol’ fashioned no.10, looking to run into the gaps Killen was supposed to have left.
Frankly, it worked about as well as my attempt to send a rocket to the moon by putting cardboard tail fins on a coca-cola bottle and trying to throw it into orbit. It says everything about where Celtic are going wrong when their best chance in the hour or so they persisted with this battleplan came when Killen flicked on a long punt from the back and Zheng raised clean through but scuffed his shot. Only when the Bhoys went to two up top did chances come by the barrowload; sadly, they came for Georgios Samaras (he who is a dead ringer for the goth in The I.T. Crowd) who managed to bugger up them all. My personal favourite came when he lobbed the keeper and was starting to celebrate when the ball hit the post.
Tony Mowbray got the Celtic job mainly on the back of his reputation for making Hibernian and West Brom good to watch, with free-flowing passing football. But never previously has he been up against teams who mostly keep ten men behind the ball against his side. Celtic don’t have the quality to play through the crowded space on the edge of the opposition box, as the delighted Hearts defence discovered last night, and which several other SPL back lines have already learned. But Maloney and McGeady seemed under instruction not to lob in crosses from wide; when these orders were eventually rescinded, it was no surprise that it coincided with the sustained spell of pressure late in the match.
There is a belief going round that, in order to be entertaining, teams have to play on-the-deck passing football. It is widely held, even amongst fans in the Scottish first division. It is also wrong. Think of the way Stoke City are maligned for their, shall we say, “direct” style of play. I’ve seen plenty of their games over the last year and a bit and they got the ball into the box as much as anyone else, and as a consequence created as many chances as anyone else. Their total of 38 league goals last season was fewer than most teams, but it was more than on-the-deck teams such as Sunderland, Middlesbrough and, you’ve guessed it, Tony Mowbray’s West Brom side.
My point is not that long ball is the way to go; it’s that Celtic’s tippy-tappy attempts to become the club equivalent of the Spanish Euro 2008 team are just going to end in failure. While their squad simply doesn’t compare with, for example, Martin O’Neill’s side of six or seven years ago, they still have good enough players to win this league if they play a system that suits them. And that has to involve two up front (like when they beat Hamilton last weekend) and the option to go quickly from back to front if necessary. But with Rangers in crisis, and Celtic looking pretty darn close to it, I still remain a tad hopeful that someone (Hibs?) might bounce out of the pack and mount a third party challenge to the Old Firm duopoly.
Anyone at Celtic Park miss Gordon Strachan yet?